More than 20 years ago, I presented a paper on the Old West at an historical conference and was surprised to find that I upset several female professors in the audience. I had not disparaged their frontier sisters. Quite the opposite: I described how strong, courageous, enterprising, and successful were many of those pioneer women. The professors in question did not want to hear that. They wanted me to describe the women on the frontier as oppressed, brutalized, raped, victimized—by white males, of course. That is not what I found, however. Not only were there countless numbers of inspiring women on the frontier, but the respect given to them—by white males—was virtually universal and omnipresent. Account after account, by the women themselves, by men, by travelers of all sorts, by foreign correspondents, all mention the deference paid to women on America’s many frontiers. The life of Nellie Cashman, known as the Frontier Angel or the Saint of the Sourdoughs, is but one testament to the courageous women who helped make America’s conquest of the West our Homeric era and who, in turn, received the utmost respect.
Born in County Cork, Ireland, in 1844, Nellie lived up to her surname, which in its Gaelic form—O’Ciosain—comes from a root word meaning “tribute” or “rent.” She would spend much of her time in the West running her own boardinghouses—and collecting rent. Arriving in America with the Civil War raging, she found work as a bellhop in a hotel. Not many bellhops looked like Nellie, a beautiful and delicately featured young woman with waist-length brunette hair; flawless, fair skin; and sparkling, expressive eyes.
Following the Civil War, Nellie headed west by way of Panama. She stayed in San Francisco long enough to provide a residence for her mother and then was off for the mining camps of the Old West, whenever a new strike beckoned to the adventurous and hearty. In camp after camp, she established boardinghouses and restaurants, built them into profitable enterprises, sold out to later arrivals, and moved on. Any miner down on his luck ate for free at Nellie’s, and Nellie was always ready to grubstake a prospector. She also had a talent for medicine and nursed many an injured or ill miner back to health.
In 1874, she joined a party of 200 Nevada miners headed for the Cassiar Mountains in northern British Columbia. The region was practically unknown and all but inaccessible. Nonetheless, the miners—and Nellie—reached their goal, striking gold on the upper reaches of the Stikine River and along its major tributary, Dease Creek. As usual, Nellie established a boardinghouse and restaurant and did some mining herself.
It was only fall when winter came to the Cassiars. The miners were caught unprepared for the heavy snowfalls and severe cold. As their supplies dwindled, dozens began falling ill with scurvy. Their beloved Nellie was not among them, having gone “out to civilization” early in the fall for a vacation in Victoria. When word of the miners’ predicament reached the city, Nellie purchased a ton of supplies, including plenty of lime juice, hired six men, and headed for Dease Creek. At Wrangel, Alaska, U.S. custom officers tried to dissuade her from what they termed a “mad trip.” True to form, she pushed on. When the commander of Fort Wrangel heard that a woman was heading into the Cassiars, he dispatched a squad of soldiers to rescue her. They didn’t catch up with her until high on the Stikine River. Nearly exhausted and suffering greatly from the cold, the soldiers found Nellie camped comfortably on the ice of the frozen Stikine, “cooking her evening meal by the heat of a wood fire and humming a lively air.” The soldiers gratefully accepted her offer of hot tea and food and returned without her.
Upon hearing of Nellie’s trek, the Daily British Colonist called it an “extraordinary feat” by an “indomitable female who . . . possesses all the vivacity as well as the push and energy inherent to her race.” Nellie and her crew continued the journey on snowshoes and sleds, reaching the miners just in time to save them from dying of scurvy.
Nellie stayed in British Columbia long enough to erect a general store and raise money to build St. Joseph’s Hospital in Victoria. By 1880, she was operating the Russ House hotel and restaurant in Tombstone and rearing her sister’s five children after both the sister and her husband had died. While in Tombstone, Nellie also established a fund for injured miners, saved a man from being lynched, and helped build the town’s first school and first Catholic church, and the first hospital in Arizona, St. Mary’s in Tucson. On a prospecting trip to Baja, she saved a party of miners from dying of thirst by crossing a blistering desert alone and finding an isolated mission.
When news of the great strike in the Klondike reached the states, Nellie was off for the Far North immediately. She climbed Chilkoot Pass, rode the rapids of the Yukon River to Dawson, and, by the summer of 1898, had opened a restaurant and grocery store. The store included a small library—the “Prospector’s Haven of Rest”—where miners could read and write letters home. “Her entrance into a saloon or dance hall,” reported a newspaper, “was the signal for every man in the place to stand.” She continued living and prospecting in the Yukon and Alaska for another 30 years, once mushing a dog team across 700 miles of wilderness on a mission of mercy. Shortly before she died, a reporter asked her if she ever “feared for her virtue” while living in all-male mining camps or prospecting on wild frontiers. “Bless your soul, no!” she replied. “I never have had a word said to me out of the way. The ‘boys’ would sure see to it that anyone who ever offered to insult me could never be able to repeat the offense.”